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Music, Autocracy, and Exile

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

What makes music so compelling as a means of human expression? Why were composers and audiences in the 20th century still drawn to the symphony and the concerto, musical forms that require neither words nor images and that occupy an extended duration of time? Why did composers seek to prove wrong Richard Wagner’s prediction that the traditions of instrumental music—music thinking pursued autonomously on its own terms—were incompatible with the presumed progress of history? The answers to these recurrent and familiar questions inevitably touch on how music is capable of escaping the limits of language, particularly with regard to the expression of human emotions and the evocation of human experience.

The circumstances of a composer’s life readily offer clues to understanding the unique character and appeal of vehicles of musical communication independent of linguistic and pictorial narration. The factors that influence the choices that composers make are not always psychological and personal, strictly speaking; interior struggles that lend themselves readily to confessional narratives in music of the sort are audible in several of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, or descriptive “realistic” musical evocations in symphonic form (consider Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, for example). Tonight’s concert highlights the significance of the political conditions under which composers lived. Politics framed the role, cultural significance, and limits faced by composers. And politics inevitably triggered a spectrum of psychological responses.

Two of the composers on this program worked within the post-World War II Soviet-dominated space. The communist regimes in post-World War II Europe privileged the practice and pursuit of classical music. During this time frame, composers behind the Iron Curtain were important personages, and prestigious and celebrated figures in a manner unfamiliar to their counterparts in the “free world.” Grażyna Bacewicz was perhaps Poland’s finest post-war compositional talent after Witold Lutosławski, but she is far less known. Indeed, her music has been largely overlooked in the West. Whatever reputation she developed remains tied to the fact that she started out as a performer. By all accounts she was a fantastic violinist. Her career as a performer, however, was cut short by injuries sustained in an automobile accident. I was introduced to her music by my teacher Roman Totenberg, the great Polish Jewish violinist and pedagogue. He, like Bacewicz, studied with Carl Flesch, and was also his assistant. He knew that my parents were Polish speaking Jews who, like him, immigrated to the United States, albeit a decade and a half later, after World War II. This shared biographical connection to Poland led him to surmise that her music for the violin, including the concertos, would appeal to me.

That Bacewicz’s music is not celebrated is an egregious oversight. Her output was extensive: seven concertos for violin as well as several for other instruments, four symphonies (part of a varied orchestral output), dramatic works, incidental music, choral music, and chamber music, including quartets. The list is rich and varied. Like so many composers of her generation, she studied with Nadia Boulanger. She was the recipient of awards in both Europe and the United States. She is credited as the woman who opened the way in Poland for other female composers, and during her lifetime commanded the respect of her colleagues and the public. Why she remains overlooked is inexplicable.

Bacewicz was in no obvious way a dissident. But she made ample use of the relative freedom of and sympathy towards aesthetic modernism in Communist Poland. Musical inspiration, as in her case, was able to flourish in a condition of un-freedom precisely because of the fact that music was a communicative medium whose precise meaning could not be decoded and translated into language or images. Therefore instrumental concert music, as opposed to prose and painting, suffered less at the hands of Communist ideologues and censors.

The second composer on today’s program to come of age under Soviet rule was Alfred Schnittke. More than Bacewicz, he rebelled openly against the strictures of ideological control over art maintained by the state. He was an innovator whose career, particularly in the late 1970s and 1980s, was stifled by the authorities. He finally emigrated out of the Soviet Union, already debilitated by a stroke, in 1990, eight years before his death. He happened to be in New York in the 1990s when the ASO performed his Faust Cantata. One of most memorable phone conversations I have had was when he called to discuss a possible change to the ending of the work and suggest a few dramatic flourishes in the choreography of the music, particularly the entrance of the lead role from the back of the hall.

The political context of Bohuslav Martinů was defined by his fate as an exile. Martinů, through the craftsmanship and variety of his output, earned the status as the heir to the remarkable 19th century legacy of Czech music. Martinů was the finest Czech composer after Janáček. In scale and scope, Martinů was the 20th century’s equivalent of Dvořák. And he was also an ardent patriot.

But he was destined to live outside of his homeland. He experienced the principled necessity of exile, much like his contemporaries, the conductor Rafael Kubelík and the pianist Rudolf Firkušný, a close friend. First came the German annexation and invasion in the late 1930s. Then came the era of communist control of Czechoslovakia after World War II. Exile in the United States was not a particularly happy experience for Martinů. His music from the war years, and the 1950s during the Cold War, reveals the composer’s predicament. Martinů experienced bouts of depression; the struggle with political displacement deepened them. But it was in exile that Martinů, who died in 1959 in Switzerland, turned his attention to the orchestra as a medium, particularly the symphonic form. He struggled against the comparatively marginal status he had in America, both as a composer and a foreigner, despite considerable efforts to help him. In response he produced a series of large-scale works that have, over time, earned him his rightful place as one of the finest symphonists of the 20th century. The orchestra, and therefore instrumental music as a major public experience, one with more of a cultural and political impact, became the vehicle through which the isolation of exile, nostalgia, and a sense of homelessness could be contended with.

The works on today’s program by these three composers illuminate the extent to which instrumental music in the grand tradition flourished as a medium of communication with the public in a manner adequate to the circumstances of tyranny, autocracy, and displacement that prevailed during the mid-20th century.

Grażyna Bacewicz, Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born February 5, 1909 in Łódź, Poland
Died January 17, 1969 in Warsaw, Poland
Composed in 1958
Premiered in 1959 at the Warsaw Autumn Festival
Performance Time: Approximately 19 minutes

Upon hearing the words Music for Strings…and Percussion in the title of a composition, one immediately thinks of Bartók’s masterpiece from the year 1936, where the missing word in the title is completed by ‘celeste.’ Bartók’s music found a particularly strong resonance in postwar Poland where, in 1958, Witold Lutosławski composed his Funeral Music in memory of Bartók. The very same year, Grażyna Bacewicz, a celebrated composer and violinist, presented her own Music for Strings, which calls for no fewer than five trumpets in addition to the strings and percussion, although Bartók’s celeste was also retained as part of the percussion section.

Stylistically, Bacewicz owes little or nothing to Bartók, although her music, too, is full of rhythmic vitality and builds upon the contrasts between “wild” ostinatos and lyrical, melodic moments. Traces of neo-classicism may be found in the use of concerto grosso-like juxtapositions of solo instruments and larger groups, but Bacewicz avoids associations with earlier music and follows an essentially modernistic path.

The three-movement composition, which Bacewicz herself included among her best works, opens with a complex texture of agitated sixteenth-note figures in the strings, against which the five trumpets enter with their striking and pungent harmonies. Soon, the ensemble breaks up into groups of soloists (violins, cello, celeste), introducing a second idea consisting of constant syncopations. A scherzo-like third idea, with fast-moving staccato (separated) notes, gives rise to a new development followed by the recapitulation of the previous two themes, in reverse order. A brief, fanfare-like coda ends the movement.

The slow central movement begins with an eerie ostinato figure with violins playing sul tasto (on the fingerboard), against which a solo viola and a solo double bass sing a mysterious duet that gradually draws in the entire string section. A solo cello suddenly cuts through the multi-layered string texture, and then the muted trumpets add their voices to the mix. A moment of emotional upsurge, with the trumpets removing their mutes, suddenly morphs into its opposite: a section with mysterious trills and isolated celeste attacks, a kind of “night music” to end this unique Adagio.

The concluding “Vivace,” where the xylophone is heard for the first time, bursts with energy and brings back some motivic elements from the first movement (sixteenth-note runs, light-footed staccato figures), investing them with new sense of excitement. A second, more melodious but still rhythmically driven section begins with some of the violins and violas playing col legno (with the wood of the bow). This vibrant and wholly unpredictable music includes some ferocious drum solos, a brief solo for string quartet with two cellos, and a dash to the surprise ending.

Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion has been successfully choreographed several times over the years, in London, Paris, and The Hague. In 1960, it won a prize in Paris at the UNESCO International Tribune of Composers. It was dedicated to conductor Jan Krenz, who led the first performance at the 1959 Warsaw Autumn Festival.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Bohuslav Martinů, Symphony No. 6, Fantaisies symphoniques

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born December 8, 1890, in Polička, Czechoslovakia
Died August 28, 1959, in Liestal, Switzerland
Composed in 1951–53
Premiered on January 7, 1955 in Boston, Massachusetts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Performance Time: Approximately 28 minutes

Bohuslav Martinů said about his Fantaisies symphoniques, also known as his Sixth Symphony: ‟[It is] a work without form. And yet something holds it together, I don’t know what, but it has a single line, and I have expressed something in it.” While the composer never explained that ‟something,” it is clear that there was a very personal impulse behind the symphony, and that the creative process was a bit of a mystery even to the creator.

Certainly, this work has numerous features that are unique in the vast output of the Czech master. The very opening, with its mysterious murmurs in woodwinds and solo strings, transpierced by an insistent trumpet call, has a thoroughly modern sound that is lightyears removed from the neo-classicism Martinů had long been cultivating. But this amorphous opening contrasts with passages of extremely clear-cut major-mode sonorities, achieving a fascinating blend where seemingly incompatible styles are joined together as in a fantasy world. This may have been one reason why Martinů chose to call his work ‟Symphonic Fantasias”—another being the fact that no traditional forms, such as sonata form, are observed. (The composer’s first idea for a title had been Nouvelle symphonie fantastique, with a nod to Berlioz.)

A single principal motif that runs through the entire piece—a simple musical idea of four notes (F—G-flat—E—F). These two half-steps, separated by a half-step, are first introduced by an unaccompanied solo cello right after the initial ‟murmurs.” (The motif actually derives from the opening of Dvořák’s Requiem.) The fiery Allegro that follows includes a gentle, pentatonic episode also possibly influenced by Dvořák—in this case, the ‟American” Dvořák. After all, the symphony, like the other five that Martinů wrote, date from the composer’s twelve-year sojourn in the United States (1941–53). The movement culminates in a highly unusual passage scored for solo violin and percussion which leads to the return of the ‟American” theme and then of the murmuring introduction.

Commentators have described the second movement as a ‟scherzo” of sorts, no doubt because of its high energy and the unpredictable thematic changes. In the rapid tremolos of the opening, dissonant clashes pile up to form a dense and dissonant texture, which dissolves when a new melody, played by the violas, softens the mood. After a long string of orchestral ostinatos (all of which include the half-step), a new formal unit begins in which long woodwind melodies are set against some nervous figurations in the strings. The insistence on short motivic units of two or three notes, repeated almost without variation, recalls Leoš Janáček, the most important Czech composer from the generation before Martinů: the author of the famous Sinfonietta was also fond of working with such tiny melodic units. After a return of the viola theme and a massive orchestral buildup, Martinů’s movement ends in a rather abrupt and subdued fashion.

Most of the third and last movement is a meditation on the Dvořák-Requiem motto, with the tense atmosphere temporarily brightened by a lyrical clarinet melody, but the brief idyll is disrupted by a new dramatic buildup, into which Martinů inserted a quote from his opera Juliette, perhaps his favorite among all his works. Another melody with ‟American” syncopations leads to the climax, after which a final recall of the motto and a soft chorale bring the symphony—and with it, Martinů’s American period—to its conclusion. The work was actually finished in Paris, where the composer had lived before the war and where he now returned. Except for another seven-month period spent in New York in 1955–56, he remained in Europe—France, Italy, and Switzerland—until his death in 1959.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Grażyna Bacewicz, Violin Concerto No. 7

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which was performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born February 5, 1909 in Łódź, Poland
Died January 17, 1969 in Warsaw, Poland
Composed in 1965
Premiered on January 13, 1966 at the Grande Salle de Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, with Augustín León Ara and the Belgian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Sternfeld
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

Bacewicz was trained as a virtuoso violinist, which explains the large number of works for violin, and strings in general, in her catalog. In particular, there are not many composers in the twentieth century who wrote as many as seven violin concertos; and Bacewicz herself played the premieres of the first four. (A serious car accident in 1954 put an end to her active performing career.)

In the 1960s, the so-called “Polish school” was one of the most exciting phenomena on the international new-music scene. The contemporary music festival Warsaw Autumn, founded in 1956, quickly established itself as one of the foremost events of its kind in the world, unique in bringing the latest in Western avant-garde music behind the Iron Curtain. New Polish music, works like Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and Witold Lutosławski’s Venetian Games (1961), conquered the world, using the most innovative musical techniques without ever renouncing expressivity.

Bacewicz, who had come from an essentially neo-classical compositional background, explored avant-garde tendencies together with her younger contemporaries, and in her last violin concerto, she filled out the traditional three-movement concerto form with an utterly new sound world emphasizing violinistic effects such as slow glissandos passing through many approximately notated intermediate pitches, and often placing the bow sul tasto (on the fingerboard) or sul ponticello (near the bridge). In the orchestra, the harps, the celeste, and the percussion play particularly important roles, and even the string section is sometimes treated “like percussion,” as the composer instructed. Yet the solo part is not without its lyrical, melodic moments, especially in the central slow movement, an atmospheric “Largo,” where the soaring lines of the violin blend with the mysterious “night noises” of the orchestra. The outer movements likewise include a multiplicity of musical characters, as indicated by the unusual tempo instruction of the first movement (“Tempo mutabile”), or by the alternation, in the Allegro finale, of playful figurations and more relaxed, introspective episodes.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Alfred Schnittke, Symphony No. 5

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Triumph of Art, which will be performed on December 7, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Born November 24, 1934 in Engels, Russia (Soviet Union)
Died August 3, 1998, in Hamburg, Germany
Composed in 1988
Premiered on November 10, 1988 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly
Performance Time: Approximately 37 minutes

Almost twenty years after his death, it is becoming increasingly clear that Alfred Schnittke was one of the few composers for whom the traditional genres of symphony (with more than 200 years of uninterrupted history) and the concerto grosso (a Baroque genre revived around the 1920s) had always retained their relevance. What is more, Schnittke was able to breathe new life into these old forms, in constant dialogue with the musical past but approaching that past like no one had ever done before.

Between 1972 and 1994, Schnittke composed nine symphonies and six concerti grossi, for a total of fourteen works since the present composition was counted twice: it is both a concerto grosso (No. 4) and a symphony (No. 5). In fact, the four-movement work begins as a concerto grosso and morphs into a symphony, merging the two genres into a single, monumental orchestral statement that seems to reverse the classical “darkness-to-light” dramaturgy of many classical symphonies from Beethoven to Mahler: this time, the path of the music leads from (relative) light straight down into (absolute) darkness.

As many commentators have noticed, Mahler was always a central reference point for Schnittke. The composer’s friend and biographer Alexander Ivashkin saw Mahler as the source of Schnittke’s “sense of irreconcilable conflict,” and he quoted the following illuminating sentence from a review by Richard Taruskin: “With a bluntness and an immodesty practically unseen since the days of Mahler, Mr. Schnittke tackles life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil and (especially in the concertos) I-against-the-world.”

The work begins with a rather simple and straightforward trumpet tune, but it is immediately distorted by the dissonant second voice supplied by the second trumpet. This tune functions as a Baroque ritornello of sorts; it is also heard as played by the concertino or small group, in this case, a violin, an oboe, and a harpsichord. In the course of the movement, the three solo instruments don’t always play as a unified group pitted against the orchestra: they also have individual solo passages and sometimes join in the orchestral tuttis as well.

The Mahler connection becomes explicit in the second movement, which in fact is based on the second movement Mahler planned for his Piano Quartet in A minor but never finished. This quartet, Mahler’s first surviving composition, was written in 1876 when the composer was sixteen and was just beginning his studies at the Vienna Conservatory. Since its first publication in 1973, the completed first movement has established itself in the chamber music repertoire, but the second movement, from which only a short fragment exists, has been known only from the appendix of the first edition. The editor, German composer Peter Ruzicka, saw the makings of a Scherzo here, but the surviving music hardly seems to bear out that description; it would be closer to the mark to call it an “intermezzo” in the Brahmsian sense. In any case, it was upon this fragment that Schnittke built his movement (which is not at all scherzo-like), presenting Mahler’s melody in a wide variety of instrumental guises, adding some rather dissonant counterpoint. At the very end, we hear the music as Mahler wrote it, in the original piano quartet scoring—and in this context, it almost sounds like a work by Schnittke written in a 19th-century style! (Schnittke himself called attention to the very unusual modulation from G minor to A major found in Mahler’s fragment.)

The third movement, the longest of the four, is also “Mahlerian,” although it contains no actual quotations. But it uses echoes of funeral marches and chorales like many of Mahler’s symphonies, and some passionate agitato figures in the violins also recall the Austrian master. Only in the Schnittke, the dramatic contrasts are even greater, the “conflicts” even more “irreconcilable,” thanks to an intensely chromatic harmonic language and a highly unusual orchestration emphasizing the lowest instruments in the orchestra, the tuba and the contrabassoon. The main theme of the movement, surprisingly, is identical to the jolly little tune with which the first movement opened—only in extreme slow motion and in the lowest register. Out of this material, Schnittke constructed a movement full of high drama, followed without a pause by the fourth movement, an extended, slow epilogue, in which we hear the first movement’s little ditty made to sound positively tragic. An implacable series of drumstrokes, first heard early in the movement, return at the height of the gigantic final fortissimo, after which the music gradually fades into silence.

Schnittke composed this majestic work for the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which gave the first performance under Riccardo Chailly on November 10, 1988. Three years after suffering the first of four major strokes, the composer was just entering a remarkably productive late period, which lasted until shortly before his death a decade later.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.